Puzzles of Flesh, by Jason Brannon

puzzles-of-flesh-by-jason-brannon coverGenre: Horror Anthology
Publisher: Silver Lake Publishing
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating: one and a half stars
Book Review by James Michael White

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It isn’t fair to criticize a work solely for lacking originality. After all, it’s not whether ideas are common or uncommon that distinguishes them nearly as much as what’s done with those ideas. Most of us can spot ideas we’ve never seen before and are much more willing to cut an author slack in some ways, most often stylistic ones, as long as he keeps showing us new ideas. On the other hand, authors who offer us common ideas are capable of distinguishing themselves by their most uncommon, even exceptional, handling of those ideas. Yet Jason Brannon’s story ideas in Puzzles of Flesh are mostly as ordinary as his exceptionally common renderings of them.

The result: Puzzles of Flesh once again proves that Gardner Dozois was correct when he said that most of what’s published in the electronic press is dreadful. You see, this 16-track concept album, with an integrated prologue and epilogue, was originally published as a July 2002 electronic book and has now come out as a trade paperback, second edition, a transformation of medium that has apparently not improved the material.

And that’s a shame because the concept, a batch of horror stories framed in epilogue and prologue by Mr. Belkin, a medical examiner who seemingly will encounter the victims of the stories as each passes beneath his fingers, is a good one. Unfortunately, the story ideas in which those characters appear will not strike readers in a “Gee, I wish I had thought of that” way, but instead in a “Oh, I could have thought of that” way.

This sense of deflation smacks of the kind of disappointment that Puzzles of Flesh generates with utter consistency. Failure to realize potential, even common potential, is still failure, and these stories fail in more ways than merely not living up to their narrative or emotional promises. For instance, one of the most intriguing ideas in the batch is one in which a hired thug is directed by his boss to dispose of a giant suitcase wrapped in chains and locks, surmounted by a lead crucifix and a Star of David. Although the boss warns the thug that the case contains a bad voodoo critter, the thug disbelieves and opens the case, only to discover that, yes, the case did once contain such a critter, but it has already been released. Furthermore, that critter has nothing better to do than to intrigue, torment, and then kill him. As a self-contained story, yes, it’s all there, but as a story that raises a significant question — Why would a demon newly released into the world waste its time diddling with a hired thug? — the story remains small because it takes the easiest and most obvious way out.

Serviceable ideas are routinely damaged by substandard composition bearing all the marks of a beginning author writing with great haste and eagerness, meanwhile ignoring a preponderance of cliches, dreadfully unsuccessful similes, abandoned narrative trains of thought, incorrect grammar, leaking plots, awkward turns of phrase, outright misuse of punctuation, and rampant malnourishment of characterization, tension, and structure. The result is that readers will be acutely aware that storytelling is a learned skill and that Jason Brannon, as exhibited in these stories, is still learning. And so, possibly, is his editor.

What we find in the mishmash are little bits of good material embedded in a vast mediocrity whose most interesting parts have been left out.

Readers looking for amateur execution of okay ideas need look no further, and in this respect an examination of the work might prove educational to students of the craft. Everyone else, however, will be disappointed.

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